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Hand Care for CrossFitters – Will

CrossFit will destroy your career as a hand model. One of the adaptations to barbell training, kettlebell lifting, gymnastics training and other activities involving grip is the toughening of the skin on the palms of your hands, and the formation of a protective layer of callouses.

This is an essential part of training – it protects the skin of your hand, allows for more secure gripping, and is useful for intimidating people when you shake hands with them.

You need to manage and maintain the callouses on your hands though, if you ignore them they’ll build up into large lumps and eventually tear off. This is painful, messy, and results in up to 2 weeks of sub-optimal training while you wait for the gaping hole in your hand to heal.

In this article we’re going to look at 3 things: minimising the build up of callouses, maintaining them in a useful condition and dealing with a tear.

Part 1: Prevention

Most people never figure out how to grip a bar correctly, and as such tend to ruck up much more skin than is necessary every time they swing a kettlebell, do a set of deadlifts or hit some pullups.

Unless instructed otherwise, people instinctively tend to place a bar in the middle of their hand as illustrated above. This is wrong. Once the hand closes and some pressure is applied in this position the loose skin between the bar and the fingers will gather up and eventually get rucked up into big, lumpy callouses. You can see this starting to happen in the second photo. Once you’ve got a lump, you’ve created a single point of contact that’s eventually going to get pulled off. Don’t do that – I really don’t enjoy cleaning blood off the bars.

Here, the bar is placed just below the base of the fingers, in a position where it is almost impossible to ruck up a whole bunch of skin and start pulling at it. You will severely limit the amount of callous-care you have to engage in when you learn this technique and make it automatic.

Now, it’s worth discussing the particular case of gripping a pullup bar at this point. When you’re doing high-rep kipping pullups, its slightly easier to hold the bar with a thumbless grip than it is with a thumbs-around grip. You’ve better leverage, the distance to the bar is shortened by a few milimetres and its’ a stronger position for your thumb.

The trade-off here is that it is much more difficult to place the bar along the skinfold at the base of your fingers with a thumbless grip. When you go thumbless, you will ruck up big lumps of callous, guaranteed. Likelihood of a tear here goes up considerably – probably not worth the slight speed increase for regular training.

I would recommend you use a thumbs-around grip like the photo on the right 90% of the time – you’ll develope more grip strength by using this slightly harder variation, and save yourself a lot of callous wear and tear. Competitions are a different story – you do whatever it takes to win, and use every advantage available to you within the confines of the rule set. If your hand rips open, forget about it. You’ll have enough adrenaline flowing that you won’t notice the pain, just jam a load of chalk into the hole to soak up the blood and keep going.

That’s a brainless way to approach day-to-day training though.

Part 2: Maintainence

Even when doing everything you can to minismise callous build-up, it’s still going to occur to some degree. As we touched on in Part 1, you want nice, smooth, flat callouses that are at the same height as the rest of the skin on your palm. If you allow big lumps to develope, your barbell/kettlebell/pull up bar will not be able to move smoothly across the hand, and will catch on the lumps instead. This is bad.

Several methods exist for managing these things – sand paper, pumice stones, emery boards, dremmels, razor blades and a few others. Everyone has there favourite approach, I’m going to talk you through mine.

It’s best to soak your hands in warm water for a couple of minutes before you get into any serious callous-maintainence. This will do 2 things: soften the skin a little, and raise your callouses up a tiny bit for easier access.

If you’ve been neglecting your hands for a while, something abrasive like a pumice or emery board is your best bet for bringing your callouses down to more managable height. Dont’t go overboard though – remember you need that hard skin to protect your palm, so you are not going to file the callous off completely. Your goal is to leave some tough skin in place but get it to the same height as the surrounding area of your palm.

An old-style safety razor is the best tool to apply the finishing touches here – just lightly skim the blade over the callous while your skin is soft from soaking in water and you should be able to create a nice, perfectly flat top on those guys that will keep your hand safe and not tear off when under pressure.

Gentlemen, if you don’t own an old-school safety razor, get one. Shaving with one of these things will up your man-credentials significantly. Ladies, buy one as a gift for an important man in your life, then steal it when he’s not looking. (www.shaving.ie)

Part 3: Cure

So you’ve done everything you can to manage your callouses and prevent excessive build up, and you’ve still managed to tear one? It can happen. Someday, some asshole friend of yours will probably trick you into doing a workout with 150 chest-to-bar pullups and kettlebell swings, you’ll notice your skin is moving around a little, but you want to beat the bastard so you’re going to stay on the bar when you shouldn’t and tear something. It happens.

First thing you want to do is wash out the cut with warm water and soap, then trim off any excess dead skin still hanging around. Do this as soon as possible, trimming that skin will hurt like hell if you leave it too long.

Next thing to do is thoroughly disinfect the wound – use an antiseptic wipe, detol wash or similar. Infections are absolutely no fun, do not allow yourself the oppurtunity to catch one.

After that, if it’s practical, leave the wound uncovered and exposed to the air and allow it to heal naturally.

After the first 24 hours or so, when the skin has started to heal up and harden, it can be nice to occasionally apply a little savlon and keep it covered for a few hours at a time to allow moisture from the antiseptic cream to soak into the skin and stop the wound from cracking open again. This is important if the rip is located on a part of your hand where the skin needs to fold and/or stretch as your reach for and grasp things. The ripping sensation of a 2 day old wound cracking open and starting to bleed again can really take the edge off your afternoon.

Depending on the depth and severity of the rip, it can be anywhere between 3 days and 2 weeks before you’ll be able to grip a barbell/pullup bar again without pain. CrossFitters are fundamentally impatient people, and it’s likely you’re going to want to train again before that.

Several methods of taping up your hands with zinc-oxide tape exist, with different ones being practical for rips in different locations. You can search for these on youtube at your leisure and try them, but I’m going to tell you right now that they are mostly useless. Tape will stay on for a few reps or a few sets, then it will start falling apart and become an annoying distraction after that. Stopping to re-tape your hands during a workout is also time-consuming and impractical.

The only 2 solutions worth talking about are a set of gymnastics-grips or a pair of thin gloves. I cannot understand why anyone would spend half an hour constructing an elaborate tape-substitute for a set of grips that will fall apart after 15 minutes everytime they do a pullup workout, when they could just buy a set of grips for €10 on eBay that will do a significantly better job and last for years. Gloves work just fine too while your hands are healing – just make sure they aren’t too thick and that they allow good air-flow to your hands so you dont get too sweaty.

If you want to wear gloves all the time that’s fine too – just remember it’s going to be harder to grip the bar due to the extra thickness of the material and you’re going to fatigue a lot faster because of that. You’ll probably also have to put up with me making jokes about them matching your purse, so one way or another you’re going to need to grow thicker skin.